The Cardboard Hoard: PAX Unplugged Recap -- Sunday; Or A Different Point of View
I was really excited for my kids first board game convention, and knew Kid’s Day would be the perfect opportunity for it, considering its proximity to home and it being planned with kids in mind. But I also knew I wouldn’t be doing the things I normally like to do at a convention, as I knew my kids wouldn’t find chatting with boring adults interesting (no matter what games they designed or companies they ran), and demoing or playing anything heavier or longer was out, as I had to make sure my attention and focus was on them and not on a game -- temporarily misplacing my kids would have, rightfully, been the end of this hobby for me.
So I was going to let them pick and choose whatever interested them, and in doing so, I really got to see the convention through new eyes, and saw a bunch of things that I am not even sure how I missed earlier.
But first, since I was with my wife and kids, who did not have exhibitor badges, we had to wait in the queue to get in. This is where it becomes clear that PAX knows what they are doing and can handle large crowds. In large hall near the main hall, they set up a series of roped areas, parallel to one another. They filled each roped area into rough lines. At 10:00 am, they allowed one line at a time to begin walking into the main hall -- much different than the Gen Con opening door rush. It was fairly orderly, and even standing at one of the last lines, it took less than ten minutes to get in.
My eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son, both very proud to have their very own shiny Kid's Day badges, had eyes as big as saucers upon entering the hall. Not knowing where to start, I steered them toward the APE Games booth, as I remember Jason Lees telling me they had a game called Major General that was good for all ages. Of course, when we got there, my kids weren’t interested in that game at all, because Duck! Duck! Go! was set up on the table -- with actual rubber ducks as player pieces. We demoed the game, and my daughter instantly said she wanted to buy it. I told both my kids that I would buy them each one game that day, but not until the end of the day after they played everything and picked their favorites.
After the demo, I steered the kids away from the exhibitor hall for a moment to meet up with my friends Marti and Sarah from Open Seat Gaming. I had promised them I’d teach them NMBR 9 and sat down with them and Devon, who we’d met up with earlier, to play a quick game. Sarah picked the game up right away and crushed all of us.
My wife -- a veterinarian and animal lover -- came back to the table with a game she had just bought on impulse, called You Gotta Be Kitten Me! It played up to ten players, so we opened it right up and jumped in a game. It was a bidding/push-your-luck game where you had to guess how many of a certain symbol or color there was on all the cards in every player’s hand. Bidding would go up until someone would say “You Gotta Be Kitten Me!” and the players would then count that item. If the player’s bid was correct the person calling them out would lose a card, if the bid was over, that player would lose a card. The last player with cards remaining won. The game wasn’t very good, but the company made up for it.
Not long afterward, walking around the exhibit hall, we saw a demo for Schrödinger's Cats. We stopped because my wife loves cute animal-themed games, and listened to the pitch -- and were really surprised to hear it was about a bidding-push-your-luck game that played almost identical to You Gotta Be Kitten Me! What are the odds that we would find two nearly identical cat-themed card games back to back? And what happened to doing market research before publishing? For the record, BoardGameGeek says Schrödinger's Cats came first, being first released in 2015.
Devon suggested finding Chip Beauvais so the kids could play Chroma Cubes, the “roll and color” game he designed. So we did. Of course, a game revolving around rolling colorful dice and coloring in pictures with crayons was a big hit with the kids -- as well as the adults at the table -- and I can’t wait until this one hits Kickstarter next year, as it’s a no-brainer for my household.
At this point, it was nearing lunchtime, and we headed toward the food court. We passed the Alpha Build room (a.k.a. The Unpub room) on the way, and Ben corralled us into a playtest of Shapes: The Game. The game involved drawing cards and stacking the oddly shaped pieces referenced on those cards onto a triangular base. Unlike, Junk Art, there was only one ruleset, and all the players played to the same base. This made the game more interactive, but otherwise it felt similar. It was fun, but I am not sure there is a market for another block stacking game. Even so, we all had fun playing it, and I wish the designer the best of luck with it.
My son and I had tickets for a learn to play Pokemon: The Card Game, so we were a bit pressed for time, and made the mistake of eating at the extremely overpriced food court. The pricing and food quality were similar to professional sports stadiums, but it did allow us to get back to the hall in time for the Pokemon Master Trainer to teach my son and a half dozen other kids how to be Pokemon trainers. The game was better than I expected, and the event came with a deck of Pokemon cards. Of course, I need to buy another deck so we can play together, but Christmas is around the corner, and I have a Pikachu deck on its way for us.
While the kids were still having fun trying all these games and walking around, they were also getting a bit tired. To be honest, after three days, so was I. So we agreed to walk around the exhibit hall for one more hour, get the kids each a game, and then head home.
My daughter pulled me over to the Beasts of Balance demo, which she had tried while I was learning the Pokemon game with my son. The game was a stacking game that was heavily integrated with an app. The cool toy factor on this one was off the charts, as it sensed which animals and other pieces you stacked on the base, and modified the game goals and points accordingly. I was spared the kids asking me to drop $80 on it only because it was already sold out.
Another demo we tried out that had a high toy factor was Maze Racers, which gives each player a white board and a set of rectangular pieces made of foam and magnets, and allows them to create a maze. When each player has created one -- which can be timed -- they switch and see who can solve the other’s maze the quickest. We all loved this one, and my son asked to bring it home. As they only had two copies left, and we were leaving shortly, we bought it on the spot.
Our final demo of the day was at the Calliope booth, where my kids wanted to try Scott Almes’ Dicey Peaks. This was a dice-based push-your-luck that reminded me of Zombie Dice with a few added elements, including a hex-based mountain to climb. The kids and I enjoyed it well enough, but I enjoyed my Friday demos of Capital City and Ancestree more.
My daughter, not swayed by any of the other demos she played, still wanted Duck! Duck! Go! as her convention purchase, so we swung by and picked it up on our way out of the convention hall. From there we headed back to the hotel and our car, out of Philadelphia and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, for our drive back home in Sunday evening traffic.
Overall, PAX Unplugged seemed well attended, but not overcrowded, and had a good, but subdued, publisher presence, as almost none of the pubs were pushing hot new games. The convention seemed tentative and lacking a firm identity; a golem without a soul. I look forward to seeing it evolve in future years, as publishers, designers, and convention goers -- both from the PAX crowd, and from the non-PAX board gaming community -- return with more concrete ideas and expectations from it, and infuse it with the life they want in return from it.